Chrysler Centura Review

By: Joe Kenwright

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Chrysler Centura Chrysler Centura Chrysler Centura
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Aussie Original: Chrysler Centura. A great concept killed by over-eager cost-cutting

Chrysler Centura Review
Chrysler Centura

 

Chrysler Centura

Picture gruelling Bathurst battles between the LH Torana SL/R 5000 and a Centura R/T with fully-developed E49 mechanicals located further back in its chassis.

Imagine a Commodore-challenging range of stylish, home-grown Chrysler Centuras powered by 2.0- and 2.6-litre Astron engines and updated Hemi-sixes. It was all meant to kick off in 1973 for an amazing ride that should have lasted a decade.

Chrysler Australia loyalists had good reason to emerge from the 1970s muttering "we wuz robbed". They were. Big time. The Centura was arguably the greatest lost opportunity of the local industry, systematically destroyed by US management before local union action against French nuclear testing in the Pacific finished it.

The 2008 axing of the Mitsubishi 380 didn't so much kill Tonsley Park in South Australia - it marked an end to a death by a thousand cuts that began with the Centura's failure. The Centura was the closest the company ever got to a viable rear-drive alternative to the Valiant not confined to the Japanese 1700mm width limit.

Under one of the better local product programs of the 1970s, Chrysler Australia was to launch an intermediate family six in 1973 - the same size as the first Commodore, but five years ahead and perfectly timed for the first fuel crisis.

Popular Lancer and Galant models with Chrysler-inspired styling were to fill the gaps below a niche-busting Centura slated for a local engineering program as extensive as the LC Torana's. Then, as the range-topping Valiant and Charger enjoyed the economies of scale from sharing key components with the Centura as early as 1973, funds would be freed up to update or replace the Valiant as needed. Chrysler had even installed a four-cylinder Centura engine in a Charger and it proved a sweet combination. A four-cylinder version of the Hemi was also trialled. But after Chrysler Oz was forced to turn the Centura linchpin of this plan into a clearance special two years later, it was inevitable that Chrysler's local demise would be as swift as it was terminal.

The Centura was originally regarded as so important to Chrysler's local fortunes that Australians were sent to the former Rootes Group in the UK at its early engineering and design stage. What started out as a Hillman Hunter replacement was intended to be the next Cortina (or Torana) rival at base level, a competitive Opel Rekord/Ford Consul (or Commodore) rival at mid-level and a stretched Rover/Ford Granada V6/Opel Senator contender at the top end.

This made it even more relevant to the Aussie market after the TC Cortina (1972)and LH Torana (1974) grew in size to re-create the more compact family sixes of the 1960s. Holden actually stated that the LH Torana was re-visiting the EH Holden. A growing intermediate six-cylinder market was also emerging with the Datsun 240K/Skyline and Toyota Mark II/Cressida.

Because the Centura was built on a long 2667mm wheelbase (the same as an AP5 Valiant or VB Commodore) to cover its British mission, it enjoyed a full 100mm wheelbase advantage over its local Cortina and Torana rivals for a visibly bigger cabin. For the first time in more than a decade, Chrysler Australia was in the box seat!

So how did it go so horribly wrong?

Simca in France, by then part of Chrysler Europe along with the Rootes Group, had almost completed a new sub-2.0-litre range that the Americans saw as duplicating what the British were working on across the channel. After an internal slugfest over which program should survive, Chrysler management did the unthinkable and forced the French to build the British car.

Where the French were committed to an efficient and compact 1.6- to 1.8-litre range to sit comfortably under the French 2.0-litre tax threshold, the new British car's main focus was a new small V6 to deliver extra refinement, appointments and prestige over its four-cylinder rivals.

The French had no choice but to water down an oversized design that wasn't theirs, with basic suspension and updated versions of their small Simca engines. But the French styling tweaks left it with less presence than its smaller Hillman Avenger stablemate, despite the shared family look. To play down the car's size, they scrapped its aggressive front styling for a plain single square headlight look ready to blend into a French streetscape filled with Renault 16s and Peugeot 504s.

First unveiled in France in 1970 as the Chrysler 160/180, the 180 version was sent to the British in 1971. Given its local impact in 1975, it was a potential stunner by 1970 standards. Yet the promising new V6 engine had disappeared without trace as it was of no use to the French.

The 2.0-litre version critical to Australia and the UK was then delayed until 1973. Positive reviews on both sides of the channel couldn't alter the fact that neither market got the car they needed. Its Chrysler branding was meaningless to Simca and Hillman buyers, and the poor standing of US cars in Europe did nothing to help its long-term future.

Chrysler Australia then scored two further booby prizes. Early plans to stay with the 180 sheetmetal, restore the original quad-headlight British front, then move and strengthen the firewall to allow the Valiant's big Hemi-six and its extra 100kg to sit level with the front of the Simca four, were axed. The same US suit who killed the Charger race program in 1972 tore up the Centura engineering budget, leaving just enough for minor body changes.

The Valiant's Hemi six was simply hung over the front. The front structure and styling then had to be ballooned out in the centre for little more than a bonnet and grille change. It was no worse than the Marina or Cortina sixes except it actually looked like it was stretched in the wrong direction.

By the time Chrysler France had completed these changes and sent out the revised kits, the French were as popular in Australia as a flatulent skunk in a perfume store. As their nuclear blasting of Pacific atolls prompted a nation-wide blockade of French imports, vital Centura components were left rotting on the docks for several years.

After the French parts were finally accessed for a mid-1975 release, Chrysler Australia was left to clear a model barely credible in engineering terms, and one that had no future anyway. For all the wrong reasons, deleting the Centura's engineering program was the right decision.

By then, the inevitable freefall in European sales combined with suspended Australian volumes had reached the point of no return. Global updates that made the local Centura program initially so attractive were off the agenda. The fallback position of a successful local Centura funding its own replacement had also evaporated.

In 1978, a bankrupt Chrysler France was swallowed by Peugeot and the Centura was gone. Against a fresh new-generation local Commodore and Cortina, it was time for a brand new replacement anyway.

Australians shed few tears after local engineers could do little more than specify heavier front springs to counter the big Hemi's extra 100kg, most of which felt like it was ahead of the front axle. The large blank ahead of the four cylinder's radiator highlighted the compromises. Expectations boosted by the Centura's French origins increased the disappointment when it drove like a pendulum. But there was a gem hidden in the range.

The French-built 2.0-litre SOHC engine with its healthy 89kW/175Nm was way ahead of anything under four-cylinder Torana or Cortina bonnets. Nestled back in the chassis and 100kg lighter than the sixes, the four-speed manual 2.0-litre was as quick as some Hemi versions, with much better-balanced handling and braking.

Yet the class-leading Centura 2000 had to be withdrawn even earlier when there was no point re-engineering the French engine for tough new emissions laws introduced in 1976. Satisfied 2.0-litre Centura owners knew better than anyone how good the sixes would have been if the Centura's local rollout had gone to plan.

 

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